FEI says horses will be ‘better prepared than ever’ in Tokyo

World silver-medalist Sam Watson is one of the Irish competitors at Ballindenisk International Horse Trials this weekend.

Equestrian’s world governing body, the FEI, has spent the past two days hosting its annual Sports Forum in Lausanne, Switzerland, where the attendees were told that horses will never have had it as good as they will at the next Olympics.

Following a visual tour of the Tokyo 2020 equestrian sites, Tim Hadaway, who is in charge of Games Operations at the FEI, spoke of air-conditioned stables, multiple cooling facilities, and mobile cooling units that will be provided by the Organising Committee, as well as competition scheduling for early morning and evening sessions.

“I believe that this is the best the horse world has ever been prepared for the Olympic Games,” said David Marlin, performance advisor to Great Britain, who was one of those who addressed the forum and talked about the ongoing FEI research programme that has been in place since Barcelona 1992.

Several of those who addressed the topic of the Olympics spoke about the importance of keeping a check on ‘thermal stress’ to mitigate against health concerns and reduced performance levels.

If teams don’t prepare properly, then horses and riders may suffer in their performance, but we want to stop them getting to the point where their health and welfare is compromised.

David O’Connor, chair of the FEI Eventing Committee, highlighted the importance of hydration, and spoke about the lessons learned before and since the heat of Atlanta 1996.

“If you’re thirsty, you’re already late; you’re already behind your hydration pattern,” he stated. “The problem is with horses [is] they don’t drink until they’re thirsty, and so physically, they’re always behind the curve. It is very important to monitor hydration. You can tell an athlete to rehydrate, but you can’t tell a horse that.”

The FEI’s veterinary chair Dr Jenny Hall outlined a new concept — individual horse intervention, which will benefit horses after travel and during training, and which will be in place for Tokyo. It will be operated in conjunction with the horse’s own team, and will be concerned with both horse and athlete welfare. Horses at exercise will be constantly monitored. Agreed triggers for intervention will include excessive sweating, increased respiration, and general demeanour.

Of course, all this attention to welfare is to be welcomed — but when it comes to the action it remains to be seen how the new Olympic stipulation of just three riders per team will pan out. It was opposed by most of the traditionally strong equestrian nations (but not by Ireland) when the FEI had it voted through at its 2016 General Assembly in order to satisfy an International Olympic Committee’s desire that more nations would be represented without increasing the overall number of horse/rider combinations.

The FEI promoted this agenda on the basis that it would help equestrian keep its presence at the Games, and it was since confirmed that the sport will be part of Paris 2024 as well.

Ireland’s equestrian involvement in Tokyo is guaranteed after the eventing team secured a place by virtue of their silver-medal success at last September’s world championships. The show jumpers have yet to book their passage and their next (and second-last) opportunity comes at the European Championships in Rotterdam this August. The Europeans offer the only remaining chance for Ireland to qualify a dressage team.

At home, the attention this week centres on Ballindenisk International Horse Trials — the first Irish international fixture of the year. The corresponding meeting last year was cancelled at a late stage after days of heavy rain but, despite the weather at the start of this week, organiser Peter Fell told the Examiner yesterday that there are no fears this time around.

“The ground had been very dry up to last weekend,” he said. “The rain that came Sunday and Monday just ran off. The forecast is fantastic for this week, so we’re all looking very good.”

Eight nationalities are represented at the Cork venue this year and the three days of competition begin with dressage on Good Friday.

This week’s five-star show jumping action takes place in Miami, where the third round of the Global Champions League (GCL) will be staged.

The second round was held in Mexico City this past weekend, where Shanghai Swans came out on top once again, adding to their win in the opening leg in Qatar last month and opening up a significant early lead in the championship. Shane Sweetnam, the only Irish rider in the Swans squad, played his part in the latest win with a clear round on Kirschwasser, while German Daniel Deusser and Sweden’s Peder Fredricson wrapped up proceedings for the league leaders in Saturday’s conclusion.

It was a good meeting for Michael Duffy in what is his second season on the GCL circuit. The young Galway rider partnered Quintano to two clear rounds for the Miami Celtics team, though they had to settle for sixth after British rider William Whitaker had eight faults on RMF Cadeau de Muze.

Duffy and Quintano were also one of 12 qualifiers for the subsequent Longines Global Champions Tour Grand Prix jump-off and finished ninth, with Bertram Allen on Molly Malone one notch behind.

Sweetnam, Duffy and Allen will be in action again in Miami, as will Shane Breen and Denis Lynch.

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